Ski Touring Equipment Advice
Published November 2016, for the 2017 winter season.
Our best piece of ski touring equipment advice is a simple one: when it comes to ski touring kit, it’s worth remembering the old adage that every extra kilo on your back knocks 10% off your enjoyment of the descents. Getting hold of the best and lightest kit available is generally always worth it. Here is our take on the seasons best new kit.
If you need advice on choosing the ideal ski, boot and binding combo for you needs – take a look at our choosing a backcountry ski setup advice article.
Below we highlight features to look for and a number of recommended products for most main items of kit – with a big thanks to the staff at Backcountry UK, our thoroughly recommended Ski Touring Equipment retailer, for helping me keep this article up to date each season.
In our experience, the best easy-to-use unit for Brits who ski a few times a year on holiday, is the Mammut Element. The latest Mammut Baryvox Pulse is the best top end unit around at the moment for more experienced users and professionals.
All of the above transceivers use the latest 3 antenna digital technology – the more advanced models use additional technologies, which allow for extra features and may also speed up search times. It must be stressed however, that the most important thing is to practice and train extensively with the transceiver that you actually own.
NB We no longer allow the old Ortovox F1 analogue transceiver on our ski trips – due to frequency drift and compatibility problems with newer digital transceivers.
Warning – Smart Phone Apps: a number of smart phone apps appeared recently, claiming to turn your phone into a transceiver – DO NOT BUY these, as they do not work! The Canadian Avalanche Foundation looked into them and issued a press release warning people against using them.
SKI TOURING BINDINGS
This is an area undergoing considerable change at the moment, with new models coming out each year and increasing numbers of people switching to lightweight pin bindings for touring use, as opposed to traditional bar/frame design touring bindings.
There are a number of things you need to know about lightweight pin bindings before deciding to make any switch however, so please read our comments carefully and seek some expert advice.
Below we give our opinions on various well established and newer touring binding models currently (or recently) on the market.
Bar/Frame Design Bindings
Bar and frame design bindings work in a similar way to alpine bindings, with the obvious addition of a walk mode, plus various adaptations to make them compatible with freeride and ski mountaineering boots. Those models marketed as freeride bindings have a more robust construction, that’s designed to take the abuse of lift accessed off piste skiing, as well as human powered touring. They are consequently potentially more versatile, but also heavier, than pure touring models.
All of these bindings come with full alpine safety release capabilities. Fritschi are probably the leading brand in terms of being the longest established in the market and having an excellent reputation for reliability. All weights are quoted for a pair of bindings with brakes (if available).
Fritschi Eagle 12 (2.0kg) Latest version of the Diamir. The best selling touring binding on the market for years and with good reason – they work extremely well and are very reliable. Buy ski brakes too as a matter of course. NB For for lighter skiers, the Scout 11 model goes down to a DIN release 3 and weighs 1.8kg with brakes.
Fritschi Freeride Pro (2.2kg) Freeride binding – ie a beefed up version of the above, designed to take abuse from a lot of lift based off piste skiing too. These ski really well, are easy to use and very reliable – a good choice for 85-90% of British ski tourers who want one binding for everything. Brakes are included in the package.
Marker Duke and Baron (~2.8kg) these are freeride bindings designed for skinning short distances, rather than dedicated ski touring bindings. They are great to ski down on, but not really designed for out and out touring, where the extra weight and design features make them slower and more awkward to use than dedicated touring bindings.
Scott/Salomon Guardian (~2.7kg) a good freeride binding, better designed and more practical for touring on than the Markers. An alternative to Fritschi Freerides if you want a binding primarily for off piste and day touring, that you can also do the odd longer tour on as well. NB Atomic also market this as their Tracker binding.
Marker Tour TR (~2.2Kg) this is a lightened up version of the Duke and Baron, with the same design features. For this reason, we don’t think it makes a good dedicated touring binding, so we’d choose the Fritschi Eagle instead.
Pin bindings have been around for 30 years now – the original Dynafit Low Tech binding design is still being made and used by thousands of tourers around the world. The main advantage of pin bindings is a considerable weight saving, as they are up to 1kg lighter than equivalent bar/frame designs.
With most pin bindings however, this weight saving comes at a cost: in terms of ease of use and also safety release capability – as most designs don’t have any lateral safety release function at the toe. Since the original Dynafit patent expired a few years ago, several copies and new designs have now appeared – many of the latest designs are easier to use, with improved safety release capabilities and/or are more strongly built, in order to make them suitable for freeride use as well as for touring.
These developments are making pin bindings a more attractive proposition to an increasing number of backcountry skiers – ie they are no longer just the preserve of racers and the ‘weight obsessed’.
NB In order to use pin bindings, you need a pair of compatible ski boots with the appropriate metal pin tech inserts moulded into the toe and heel. Nowadays just about all new touring and freeride boots come with them fitted as standard, but if you’ve an older pair of boots you may have to upgrade.
Dynafit Tourlite Speed (0.66kg) The original pin binding design, still going strong after 30 years. It’s a lightweight touring only model and they are trickier to step in and out of, but if weight is critical, then these lightweight pin bindings are an ideal choice (see release safety notes below before you buy though).
Dynafit TLT Superlight 2.0 (0.35kg) The lightest pin binding available with adjustable safety release tension. NB The new 2.0 version also has ski brakes available, making it the lighest binding available with brakes (0.52kg incl brakes).
NB If you already own a set of superlight pin bindings, but also want to have brakes on your skis – then there are a couple of retrofit ski brakes available for pin bindings. The best we’ve come across are made by the Italian company Kreuzspitze – these weigh 88g each, they are very well made and fit onto the harscheisen slot of your pin bindings.
With a small locking button mounted onto the ski, the brakes can be fitted for skiing down and removed for skinning up, just like your harscheisen. Clearly it’s a bit more hassle than having permanently fitted ski brakes, but you can build a lighter overall setup, so it’s an option worth knowing about.
Dynafit Radical ST and FT 2.0 (1.1kg) Beefier, more all-round touring version of the original – these have a swivelling toe piece to aid safety release and also come with brakes. Unfortunately, the new swivel toe makes them a pig to step into and everyone I’ve met who uses them, wishes they still had the Mk1! The ST model is designed for use on skis under 100mm under foot, whereas the FT model has a wider drilling pattern designed to be used on skis over 100mm under foot. Please note however, that the FT is still only a lightweight touring binding – ie it’s not strong enough for regular off piste or resort use.
G3 Ion (1.2kg) I used to like the look of these, until I discovered that they have a couple of major weaknesses – firstly, the heel unit is very laterally flexible and more importantly, the toe piece doesn’t release properly when used with certain models of touring boots – ie great if you ski steeps and never want them to come off, but a major flaw for the rest of us!
Plum Yak (1.2kg) French pin binding, similar to the Dynafit Radical but with a few tweaks – they look lovely with all metal construction, come with brakes, the boot heel sits on a platform for stability and they have wider mounting holes for use on 100mm+ skis.
NB The Plum Guide range of lightweight pin bindings are similar to the Dynafit Tourlite Speed bindings – ie less mass – but in addition, the Plum bindings have optional ski brakes available. At the moment, I multiday tour on a pair of Plum Guide bindings with removable Kreuzspitze ski brakes used on the descents – this has proved to be a reliable, lightweight combination.
Fritschi Diamir Vipec 12 (1.2kg) These are the first generation of pin bindings with full alpine safety release capability. The design has a full sideways toe release, allows changing from ski to walk mode without removing the ski, the rear binding allows full ski flex without affecting the boot/binding interface and it has a ‘high din’ lockout mode at the toe (so the ski stays on whilst skinning, but will still release if you get caught in an avalanche whilst skinning) – these are all major advantages over other pin bindings on the market.
Fritschi have been making continual improvements to the design, with the latest Diamir Vipec 12 Black Edition being a good, reliable binding. I’ve skied on these for 3 full seasons now and although the early versions had their foibles, Fritschi have addressed these issues in the new Black Version and they are now the only pin binding that I recommend to clients who want to save weight by upgrading from their older bar/rail design touring bindings.
The reason I recommend Vipecs is because they are light (1.2kg incl brakes) and they are the only pin binding with full lateral toe release – ie they offer all the same safety capabilities as alpine and bar/rail design touring bindings, so there’s no safety compromise in swapping over to them.
With all other pin bindings on the market, you lose lateral toe release – which increases your risk of rotational tib/fib fractures in certain types of fall. The only person I’ve ever had to chopper off a mountain suffered exactly this injury whilst skiing on pin bindings, so it is an issue – especially if you fall over a lot in poor vis or tricky snow…
Marker Kingpin 10 + 13 (1.46Kg) – new TUV safety release certified freeride bindings. These are a hybrid design, using a pin attachment at the toe and a regular alpine binding attachment at the heel, which has a ski/walk mode added. Like other pin bindings, these don’t have lateral toe release – so I wouldn’t recommend them for regular resort skiing, where full safety release is much more important than weight saving.
In use, they ski really well, are solidly built and easy to use and they weigh in at 1.46kg, which is very respectable.
Finally, a note on the TUV safety testing – apparently the Markers have to be placed in the release testing machine backwards in order to pass the safety tests – so we highly recommend them if you like skiing backwards all the time!
Dynafit Beast 16 (1.95Kg) – burly freeride pin binding with TUV safety release certification (NB they still don’t release laterally at the toe). At nearly 2Kg a pair these are not lightweight touring bindings, but if you are a dedicated freerider who does a lot of skinning and you really need the higher release capability (ie there are not actually many skiers who skin long distances and then jump off cliffs), then they are considerably lighter than bar/frame freeride bindings. They come with a new metal heel insert to fit onto your boots in order to make them compatible with most freeride boots – with the notable exception of Salomon Quest and Black Diamond boots.
Dynafit Beast 14 (1.6Kg) – this is a hybrid binding, with the Dynafit Radical 2.0 toepiece and the Beast heelpiece, which makes it a bit lighter than the Beast 16.
NB Pin Bindings & Release Safety. Please note that Fritschi Vipec bindings offer lateral toe safety release with release tension adjustment – ie the same as on bar/frame design touring bindings and alpine downhill bindings. However, all the other Dynafit bindings, Plum bindings and Marker pin bindings do not have this feature – which may have safety implications in certain types of fall – so we do not recommend using these bindings if you are a skier who takes regular falls in difficult snow conditions. They are only suitable for experienced and good standard off piste skiers (ie at least level 3, preferably 4 or 5 on our Off Piste Skiing Ability Levels).
It is important to consider these different release capabilities before choosing which pin bindings to buy – ie you need to decide which you want to prioritise: maximum weight saving, or maximum release safety features.
BACKCOUNTRY SKI BOOTS
We make no apology for erring to the performance end of the market here – as good, fully custom fitted boots will improve your skiing and enjoyment more than anything else. To start with, go for a full thermofit liner and a custom made footbed straight away – it will always be worth it. After that, foot volume, individual fit and boot weight may well decide your final choice – but we give notes on various favourite models below:
3-4 Buckle Ski Mountaineering Boots
Ski Mountaineering boots have a vibram rubber sole unit with a rocker shape to aid walking and climbing in, as well as skiing in – consequently they are the most popular choice for multiday ski touring. We concentrate here on supportive 3-4 buckle boots, which are most appropriate for the majority of British Ski Tourers – the good news is that these boots have become considerably lighter in recent years (many now dipping under 3kg a pair, as opposed to 3.6-3.8kg just a few years ago) without any compromise in either fit or ski performance. Walk modes have also improved massively in recent years, thanks to developments in ski mountaineering race boots.
Scarpa Maestrale (3.1kg) – Scarpa’s top all rounder and a huge success, this model has a relatively low volume fit. The Maestrale RS is a stiffer version of the same.
Scott Cosmos II (2.9kg) – the Cosmos is another excellent 4 buckle design, with a slightly broader fit than the Maestrale.
Scott Superguide Carbon (2.8kg) – same shell shape as the Cosmos, but with added carbon! This makes the boot stiffer and lighter – but it also make your wallet lighter at the same time.
La Sportiva Spectre 2 (2.87kg) – New Mk 2 version out this year offers improved durability. Light, high performance touring boot from La Sportiva. 4 buckle design and an excellent walk mode – has a similar shape and volume to the Cosmos.
Regarding inners – foam injection inners are known for giving a precise fit, but they are too cold for ski touring. Instead, go for Scarpa Intuition inners which are the best thermo fit inners on the market at the moment.
Superlight Ski Mountaineering Boots
Race derived superlight touring boots have now entered the mainstream to cater for keen, good standard ski tourers who want to save as much weight as possible. In general you only get 2 buckles instead of 4, but if you are a good skier, then these boots can perform extremely well and save considerable effort on the climbs. Other useful features gained from their race heritage are very good walk modes and quick lockdown systems for changing over from walk to ski mode and vica versa.
The other important thing to note about this type of boot concerns fitting and making boot modifications. Because they are derived from race boots, many have a low volume fit and all are made of lightweight materials. This means that shops are sometimes unable (or unwilling) to stretch the shells as much as on regular ski boots – so you need to make sure they fit your feet pretty well out of the box, without requiring extensive stretching or modification to get them to fit.
Scarpa F1 EVO (2.2kg) – my personal favourite. Having skied all of the others, I find that the F1 EVO gives excellent support and all day comfort. They have a bit more volume than the TLT7 the shell does allow for limited stretching in some areas (eg across the ball of the foot) but not everywhere. NB go for the manual lever version, which is robust and very reliable.
Dynafit TLT7 Expedition CR (2.26Kg) – new model out this year, with a few tweaks and improvements over version 6. NB We strongly recommend the CR Version, which is slightly heavier, but has far warmer inners – ie unless you are moving very fast or only ever tour in warm spring conditions, the lighter CL inners are likely to give you cold feet! Like F1 EVOs, they are great to walk in and ski extremely well – but they are a low volume fit, so don’t suit everyone. NNB these also have no toe bail, so you need to use a semi strap on crampon with them.
Arc’teryx Procline Carbon Support (2.5Kg) – innovative specialist ‘mountaineering boot you can ski in’, or ‘ski boot you can climb in’ – depending on which way you look at it! Precise, low volume fit and a unique split cuff design, which is said to aid climbing and traversing. These are a very specialist boot – so won’t suit many British ski tourers – but an interesting product that could be very good if it lives up to expectations.
Atomic Backland Carbon (2.2Kg) – Atomic’s entry into the backcountry ski boot market. Personally, I didn’t get on with these (I’m being very diplomatic here!) – but they may suit you if you’ve got particularly high volume feet.
Important Note: All of the lightweight boots above only work with tech bindings that have a standard 2 pin attachment system at the heel (ie you cannot use them with any bar/frame design bindings, or with the Dynafit Beast or Marker Kingpin bindings).
Freeride boots with interchangeable soles offer great support for off piste skiing, but are only really designed for lift assisted and day touring use. They are not so comfortable for walking and skinning long distances in (ie we’ve seen lots of blistered feet coming out of freeride boots on longer multiday hut tours – if you plan on using the boot for multiday tours, then you may be better looking at a dedicated ski mountaineering boot instead). This is an expanding market, with numerous new models available – a few good ones to look at are:
- Scarpa Freedom SL
- Scarpa Freedom RS
- K2 Pinnacle Pro
- Salomon QST
- Technica Cochise
Our advice is simply to go for which ever one gives you the best fit. Of the ones above – the Scarpa Freedom SL and RS give a mid volume fit and the Salomon QST gives a wider volume fit.
WOMEN’S BACKCOUNTRY SKI BOOTS
There’s less choice in women’s backcountry ski boots compared to the men’s, but all of the major manufacturers produce female specific versions of their popular backcountry models.
NB You’ll be pleased to know that these aren’t just: ‘shrink it and pink it’ models – ie the women’s models are moulded on separately shaped lasts and generally have softer flex properties to cater for lighter weight skiers, but still come with the same features as the men’s boots. Below we’ve highlighted a number of good ones to look at, together with the men’s model that they are equivalent to.
Scarpa Gea (2.8kg) – Good quality ski mountaineering boot specifically moulded for women’s feet. Same construction and performance characteristics as the men’s Maestrale boot – see notes above.
Scott Celeste 2 (2.7kg) – High performance women’s ski mountaineering boot – women’s version of the Cosmos – see notes above.
Scarpa F1 EVO Wms (2.0kg) – women’s version of the F1 EVO.
Scarpa Freedom SL Wms – womens freeride boot. Essentially this is a comfortable, supportive downhill boot with a good walk mode – women’s version of the Scarpa Freedom SL.
K2 Minaret – women’s version of the K2 Pinnacle Pro freeride boot.
SKI TOURING CLOTHING
Just like for other equipment – the best ski touring equipment advice for clothing is to keep the weight down. Light, warm and versatile are the key words to bear in mind when choosing touring clothing – as an average week sees you alternate between carrying clothes in your sac on climbs and warm afternoons, to wearing absolutely everything when the weather closes in.
A traditional layering approach works well, but we’ve also found certain combination garments can be great with the advantage of saving weight by combining the function of 2 layers into one (eg an insulated waterproof jacket is lighter than a cagoule and mid layer combined, and you often wear both or none at all when ski touring – eg the Arcteryx Fission SL Jacket is a good example of this).
Either go for thermal longjohns under a pair of lightweight overtrousers, or a pair of lightweight mountain trousers and carry the overtrousers for bad weather. Another alternative if you don’t anticipate rain, is to just take a pair of weather resistant mountain pants made from fabrics such as Powershield or Windstopper and ditch the overtrousers altogether.
For baselayers we prefer Merino wool or powerstretch depending on how cold it is and look for Goretex paclite or activeshell when choosing overtrousers. Full weight goretex sallopets are best avoided, as you end up either sweating a lot or carrying them – and they weigh a ton!
Recommended Products that we use ourselves for ski touring include the following: Merino Wool Baselayers, Arcteryx Alpha SL Pant, Arcteryx Alpha Comp Pant
Typically this runs along the lines of: wicking baselayer + warmer midlayer + shell garment, with an additional light and warm ‘spare layer’ to put on when it’s really cold.
For base layers we really rate Merino wool – which is warmer, more comfortable over wide temperature ranges and doesn’t smell like other thermals.
For midlayers we recommend a light softshell jacket or midweight fleece (avoid heavier softshell jackets, which are invariably too warm when skinning and weigh a ton to carry). A lightweight shell jacket made of Gore Activeshell is perfect.
For a spare layer, we recommend either a lightweight insulated synthetic jacket or a lightweight down jacket. Look for a good quality model that weighs around 3-400g (for European hut touring, 200g generally isn’t warm enough, whereas 5-600g is often too warm!)
Recommended Products that we use ourselves for ski touring include the following: Merino Wool Baselayers, Arcteryx Gamma MX Jacket, Arcteryx Epsilon LT Hoody, Arcteryx Nuclei Jacket, Arcteryx Atom LT Jacket.
Good quality ski socks or mountaineering socks with a good wool content are essential. Ski socks don’t want to be too thick and wearing two pairs is best avoided. A warm, preferably wind resistant hat is also a must – as are top notch ski/mountain gloves. If you suffer from cold hands, then use mittens instead, as they are much warmer. NB When drying your boots in the evening, whatever you do keep your thermofit boot liners away from too much heat (ie don’t put them right next to a fire or on a radiator), as you risk ‘reforming’ them if they get too hot.
SKI TOURING CRAMPONS
Very light, alloy framed crampons are available for ski touring which are a great weight saver and suitable for most ‘ski focussed’ tours. Camp XLC’s (390g) and Petzl Leopard FL’s (360g) are the lightest, but don’t have anti ball plates – Black Diamond Neve’s (576g) are superbly made, nearly as light and come with excellent anti ball plates. With both of these superlight options, don’t go buying a pair of these intending them to be your only set of crampons if you also do technical ski mountaineering – as they were only ever designed for stomping up steep snow.
For more technical ski mountaineering trips that may involve climbing on icy ground and snowed up rock, then you still need to use good steel crampons. Currently we reckon that Petzl Charlet Vasak’s (850g) are the best all round mountaineering crampons, so these would be a good choice.
The final option is to go for a hybrid steel/alloy crampon, which offers some of the benefits of both – ie a light weight alloy rear half and strong steel front points to deal with occasional rock and ice. The Petzl Irvis Hybrid (540g) is a good one to look at in this category – unless you are doing a lot of technical ski mountaineering with specific climbing objectives, these will be suitable for the vast majority of ski tours you are likely to do.
CREVASSE RESCUE KIT
If you are joining a guided trip or course, then 2 prussik loops and a 120cm sling with screwgate carabiner is sufficient.
However, a guide would probably be carrying the following:
- belay device
- 5 screwgate carabiners
- 120cm sling
- spare quickdraw
- 2 ice screws
- 2 prussik loops
- Micro Triaxion
- Lightweight pulley or DMM
- Revolver carabiner.
Petzl RAD System
To Quote Petzl: “Complete, ultra-light and compact, the RAD SYSTEM (Rescue And Descent) kit allows skiers on mountain terrain to always have the equipment necessary for crevasse rescue, rappelling, or roping up on skis to traverse a crevasse zone. This kit contains a storage bag, 30 meters of RAD LINE 6 mm specific cordage, carabiners, ascenders and a sling.”
Basically it’s a small bag that weighs just 1 kilo and contains everything you need to either rope up on a glacier, or pull someone out of a crevasse. The haul kit is set up and ready to use inside the bag, so you can just pull it out, attach it to a ski belay and start the rescue immediately. The idea is to have at least 2 kits in a team and ski with them clipped onto your harness constantly at the ready. Costing 200 Euros each, they aren’t cheap – but are pretty good value when you add up the cost of buying all the individual parts.
SKI TOURING HARNESSES
Light and simple are the watchwords here. If you already have a climbing harness, then you can also use it for ski touring too.
However, if you want to save some weight, then there are 2 options: buy a lightweight climbing harness (eg. Petzl Sitta Harness) or an ultralight, specific ski touring harness, such as the Black Diamond Couloir, Petzl Tour and Petzl Altitude – these are all popular choices.
SKI TOURING ICE AXES
There are a number of extremely light alloy headed axes on the market, billed as ski mountaineering models (eg Cassin, Camp XLC ).
Unfortunately, when you try to climb or actually do any work with one of these tools they are very difficult to use effectively, so best reserved for days when you don’t think you are going to need an axe! (ie I wouldn’t bother buying one..)
If you are after a lightweight tool which is genuinely useful when you need it, then look at the Grivel Airtech (400g), or Petzl Glacier Literide (320g) – the shorter 45-48cm lengths fit inside a pack, to keep your axe safely out of the way on descents.
Any pair of normal fixed length ski poles are fine for ski touring, with alloy ones being preferable to carbon fibre or composite poles in terms of strength – but either are a lot stronger and more reliable than telescopic poles. Currently our favourite backcountry ski pole is the Black Crows Oxus – they aren’t cheap, but you get what you pay for. NB Whatever poles you buy, make sure you have reasonable sized baskets (5cm plus in diameter) for the softer conditions and a full metal rather than composite tip if possible.
If you really do prefer telescopic poles, then we strongly recommend the Black Diamond Traverse two stage model – as this is the most reliable telescopic pole on the market.
230-260cm is a good working length and carbon fibre models are lightest. Currently the Black Diamond Quick Draw Carbon and Grivel Carbon Fibre Probes offer the best value in this group.
Alloy probes are stronger but heavier – with Voile, Ortovox and BD all offering very similar products and prices.
SKI TOURING ROPES
It’s common to carry two 30m long, 8mm dynamic ropes in the party – one with the leader and another at the back (in case the leader skis into a crevasse!). Beal market a specific rope of this type called the Randonee, which comes in 30m and 48m lengths. Having said that, many variations occur depending on the type of tour and the obstacles expected – you may see guides carrying everything from 40m of 7mm static cord, to a full weight, full length rope.
SKI TOURING RUCSACS
A 35-40l pack with a u shaped zip opening rather than a lid is the classic touring sac. Other useful features are a close, body hugging fit, ability to carry skis together on the back (like you would carry a snowboard) and as few excess features as possible (though it’s difficult to achieve this without taking a knife to most sacs!)
Deuter, Ortovox and Mammut make a number of good touring sacs of this type – Eg the Mammut Spindrift, Ortovox Haute Route 32 and Deuter Guide are all well designed and big enough for multiday hut tours – each offering slightly different features depending on what range of activities you plan to use the sac for.
AVALANCHE AIRBAG RUCSACS
Avalanche airbag rucsacs have become more popular in recent years, especially amongst off piste and freeride skiers. Not as many ski tourers have started using them yet though, because they add extra weight to your pack – however there are new packs available that only weight about 2kg, making them far more suitable for ski touring.
Other barriers to adoption have been the not inconsiderable cost (£550-£650) and perceived issues with carrying the gas canisters that most of the systems use on flights. All of the gas cans are compliant with IATA safety regulations and are ok to take onto flights in Europe (indeed, most people don’t experience any problems at all flying to popular ski destinations with them nowadays) – but you should still always contact the airline in advance to let them know and also take the manufacturers flight safety paperwork with you to the airport in order to show if needed.
Gas canisters are not allowed on flights in North America however, so you need a refillable canister or electric powered system for travelling there.
In terms of what’s available, there are now several different systems on the market; most use gas canisters to inflate the airbags, but 2 new systems use electric powered fans. For the gas canister based systems, the principle user differences to consider are as follows:
- ease of deployment
- total system weight
- rucsac design
- interchangeability between rucsacs
- ease of replacement of the gas can in resort/after deployment
The other 2 systems released recently use a rechargeable battery and a fan to inflate the airbag. This clearly offers a number of advantages – ie no problems with flying (it’s a laptop battery), multiple deployments (4+ per charge), ease of practice in using the system and no difficulty replacing gas canisters after deployment. You still need to consider all the other factors above though, before selecting a system.
For each system listed below, the weight quoted is for a rucsac big enough to use on a multiday tour. For freeride and day touring use, smaller and lighter rucsacs are available for all of these systems.
Ortovox Ascent 30 Avabag – 2.1Kg New out this year – the lightest airbag system on the market. Comes with a practice mode, so you can train without deploying the canister each time. Well designed pack, with an interchangeable airbag system, so it can be installed in different packs. Non refillable cartridge, so cannot be taken on flights in N America.
Mammut Pro Protection 35L – 2.3kg New out this year: much lighter removable airbag system – can be fitted into any compatible pack, of which there are many. A refillable cartridge (300g heavier than the non refillable one) is also available, which can be filled up in resort (any dive shop or paintball centre can also refill it) – ie makes flying with an empty canister possible in North America.
BCA Float 32 – 3.06kg The BCA packs are competitively priced and use a refillable gas canister, so have similar advantages to the Mammut system above. The main difference is that the system is fixed permanently into the pack, so you can’t swap it between rucsacs. They also make a 42l version at 3.3kg if you need more space.
ABS Vario L 32L – 3.2kg ABS are the original manufacturer and have been making airbag rucsacs for nearly 30 years. The vario base unit allows different packs to be zipped on and off in a matter of seconds. Tried and trusted system. The one drawback is that both the used handle and canister must be sent back for replacement after each deployment. This is Ok if you are near to a dealership and able to swap these out in resort, but a big problem if you are anywhere else.
Scott Alpride 30 – 2.9kg Just about big enough for multiday touring if you pack carefully! The Alpride system is light and also gets around flight issues by using the same gas canisters as are used in aircraft lifejackets (ie there’s one under every seat on the plane). It’s a modular system, so you can swap it between compatible rucsacs and the gas canisters are cheap and readily available, so you can potentially take spares with you.
Black Diamond Saga 40 Jetforce – 3.4kg The deployment system on this pack uses a rechargeable battery and fan system to inflate the airbags. This creates to a number of significant advantages, but the most important two are: no issues with flying (it’s a laptop battery) and multiple deployments are possible (4+ per charge), so you won’t hesitate to deploy it (this is a significant advantage over gas canister systems).
Arc’teryx Voltair 30L – 3.4Kg Arc’teryx enters the market with it’s own battery powered avalanche pack. Fully waterproof, super well designed pack, with the same advantages as BD’s Jetforce system above.
The new battery powered systems have several advantages, but also a couple of downsides that we can see:
1. The packs are considerably heavier than the lightest gas powered models.
2. The whole system including the battery is fixed into the pack, so you can’t change the rucsac, or replace the battery if it begins to lose it’s charging capacity.
I’d be surprised if these issues aren’t improved on, or resolved in future models though.
We only recommend metal bladed shovels, as when digging in real life in hard avalanche debris, plastic blades flex so much that they and are totally ineffective.
The Black Diamond Deploy 3 is a great metal shovel with a telescopic handle, the Mammut Alugator Light is similar but a little cheaper and for a budget quality metal blade, check out the Black Diamond Lynx.
SKI TOURING SKINS
In our opinion Black Diamond skins and the latest Colltex skins have the best glue, plus they glide very well and last a long time also. The new Black Diamond Ultralite Skins look great and weigh 30% less than previous models, so are well worth checking out.
For European conditions, go for mixed fibre skins – pure mohair skins only glide a little better at non racing speeds, but they wear out 3-4 times faster…
Skins are either sold pre-cut to a particular model of ski, or more commonly they come with a cut-to-fit device. 3G skins are identical to BD ones, just rebranded in a different colour.
There are plenty of changes going on in glue technology at the moment, with new types of glue that utilize different properties in order to stick. Colltex Whizz Skins are the latest example of this, using an acrylic based adhesive layer – though feedback on these has been mixed so far.
SKI TOURING HELMETS
We are seeing a lot more folk touring with helmets nowadays – so I thought it would be useful to highlight a few good quality lightweight models that have decent venting and removable ear flaps, to make them suitable for ski touring.
First up, the Salomom MTN Lab Helmet is designed specifically for backcountry skiing and passes both the climbing helmet and ski helmet safety tests – it’s very light at a claimed 250g and has two different liners – a winter one with ear flaps incorporated and a summer one without. We’ve used this helmet a lot for skiing and like it, but like all specialist helmets it’s at the upper end of the price scale – but you get what you pay for!
Next, the K2 Route Helmet is designed for backcountry skiing and boarding and is light at a claimed 320g – it comes with good venting, removable ear flaps and headlamp/goggle clips. This one also passes the cycle helmet test, so can be used for mountain biking in the summer.
Finally, the Alpina Snow Tour Helmet is designed for ski touring, but also passes the climbing helmet test, so you can use it for both activities. It’s light at 315g, has good ventilation so that you won’t overheat and for colder weather, it comes with a compatible beanie that you can wear either under the helmet or on it’s own. Like the others, it has attachment points for both ski goggles and a headlamp.
SKIS – RESORT AND TOURING
A minefield this one! Here we aim to flag up a few of the best ‘light all mountain skis’ or ‘robust touring skis’ around that deliver good on and off piste performance, without being too heavy for touring – ie for Brits wanting one ski for all.
Movement Apex (3.0kg at 177cm, 130-94-119, 19m radius). Guides favourite – this lively ski makes a brilliant one ski setup, with a bias toward off piste and touring.
Black Crows Orb Freebird – (3.0kg at 169cm, 125-90-112, 15m radius) New version of this award winning ski has added tip rocker and a shorter radius, making it easier to ski and an excellent choice for a wide range of skiers.
Dynastar Cham 2.0 97 – (3.4kg at 178cm, 133-97-113, 15m radius) brilliant new version of the classic Cham 97, these are an excellent lightweight freeride ski with a rocker tip, flat tail and Paulownia wood core. The women’s version is called the Cham 2.0 Women 97.
Black Crows Camox Freebird – (3.15kg at 171cm, 128-97-114, 18m radius) Plenty of rocker on this great backcountry charging ski, built strong enough to ski around resort on too.
Blizzard Black Pearl – (2.7kg at 166cm, 125-88-110, 17m radius) Superb women’s ski – new superlight construction make this a category defying ski: a great one-ski-for-everything choice for resort and touring.
Movement Ultimate (2.6Kg at 160cm, 126-88-114, 13m radius) Fall Line magazines’ ski of the year – brilliant new women’s ski, suitable for both resort and touring use.
SKIS – LIGHTWEIGHT TOURING
If saving weight is a consideration, then this is the way to go – again the market is huge, but we’ve flagged up a few of the best wider bodied touring skis that are suitable for all round European Alpine conditions.
A quick note on useage: although these skis are designed for ski touring, we’ve for the most part selected models here that in many conditions ski just as well as resort skis and have a strong and reliable construction, so as long as you’re not totally ragging them, they’re ok for a bit of resort use too – ie fine as a one ski setup with a strong focus on touring.
Dynastar Mythic Vertical 87 (2.0Kg at 170cm, 118-87-106, 20m radius) Excellent new superlight ski from Dynastar – a touring only ski, focussed on long days and big ascents – but skis really well on the descents.
Salomon MTN Explore 88 (2.44kg at 169cm, 125-88-111, 18m radius) Excellent, best-selling lightweight touring ski that’s suitable for a wide variety of conditions, including some skiing around resort.
Movement Alptracks Ltd 94 (2.2Kg at 177cm, 130-94-119, 19m radius) Superlight carbon version of the Apex – same footprint, skis pretty much as well and really light on the climbs.
Scott Superguide 95 (2.66kg at 178cm, 128-95-116, variable 3d radius) If you want to save as much weight as possible, whilst sacrificing a minimum of performance, then Superguide 95s are a great option.
Dynastar Mythic (2.8kg at 178cm, 133-97-113, 15m radius) Superlight carbon version of the new Cham 2.0 97 – they ski just as well as the full weight version, making the Mythic an outstanding soft snow and powder touring ski.
Movement Vista (2.4kg at 161cm, 119-84-108, 17m radius). Lightweight womens touring ski – great edge hold, nimble in tight terrain and particularly suited to longer tours.
NB – Superlight Skis. There are many different models of very light skis available nowadays, but you need to choose extremely carefully in this category, as quite a few are either difficult to ski on and/or not so strongly built (ie thinner edges, bases and sidewalls – these are the most vulnerable parts of the ski).
Depending on materials used and quality of construction, there is definitely a limit to weight saving where both ski performance and strength drop off markedly. We’ve tested and rejected numerous superlight skis for one or other of the above reasons. This contrasts markedly with top end off piste and resort skis, which are pretty much all good ski nowadays!
SKIS – LIGHTWEIGHT FREERIDE
The following are a selection of lightweight, wide bodied, soft snow orientated skis – that are fine to push uphill – ie for powder, lift assisted backcountry skiing and day touring.
NB Please note that all of the skis listed in the two categories above are also wide enough to enjoy a great days powder skiing whilst out ski touring in Europe (10 years ago, 90mm underfoot was considered a super specialist powder ski) – ie you don’t need superwide 100mm+ skis all of the time, but you may want to have a pair of wider skis, in order to have as much fun as possible on fresh snow days.
With that in mind then, here are a few of the best lightweight freeride skis on the market at the moment – in order to convince yourself that you really do need a pair!
Scott Superguide 105 – (3.1kg at 175cm, 135-105-124, 23m radius) New out this year, Fall Line Magazine’s Ski of the Year and our tester’s favourite too – a superb lightweight, wide bodied ski that’s also great fun around resorts.
Black Crows Navis Freebird (3.5Kg at 179cm, 133-102-118, 19m radius) Big green powder machines – more width and rocker than the Camox, offers great deep snow performance for good standard off piste skiers.
Black Crows Atris – (4.25kg at 178cm, 137-107-127, 18m radius) They’re not light, but we love ‘em – the Atris is our favourite wide bodied charging ski for blasting around resorts and further afield.